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'This is about my safety': Trans Americans on November's high-stakes election

Transgender voters say the upcoming presidential election is bigger than politics — it’s existential.
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During the coronavirus pandemic, Chase Jennings worries about his right to visit the doctor.

“There is a chance that if I went to a doctor and was sick, looking for care, that he could refuse service to me because of the fact that I’m transgender,” Jennings, 31, a trans man who lives in Austin, Texas, told NBC News.

Jennings, like many transgender Americans, has his rights on the forefront of his mind this upcoming election. He's particularly concerned with the the Trump administration's efforts to roll back transgender nondiscrimination protections in the Affordable Care Act.

“This presidency, if they get another four years, what are they going to be able to do then?” he said about President Donald Trump’s administration, which has been widely criticized by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer advocates for rolling back trans rights and protections.

What’s at stake?

Ebony Harper, the director of the transgender wellness organization California TRANScends, said the stakes in the November election couldn't be higher for her and other trans Americans.

“This is an important election,” she said. “This is about me getting my hormones. This is about me keeping my job. This is about my safety.”

"This administration has done a tremendous amount of things to attack people like me and have made life very scary."

Chase Jennings

Since the beginning of Trump's first term, civil rights advocates have been sounding the alarm on the administration's policies pertaining to LGBTQ rights— particularly those of transgender people. In a November report issued by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights — which concluded the administration was broadly “undoing decades of civil and human rights progress” — the commission cited the administration’s 2017 reversal of transgender bathroom protections in public schools, its efforts to eliminate transgender health protections from the Affordable Care Act and its unsuccessful argument that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does not protect transgender workers.

The White House pushed back on the report’s findings.

“This administration has done a tremendous amount of things to attack people like me and have made life very scary for me,” Jennings said.

Jennings listed many of the administration's actions cited in the Commission on Civil Rights report, including Trump’s ban on transgender Americans serving openly in the military, as reasons for his fear. He worries about additional policy changes affecting trans Americans that could be enacted if Trump were to hold office for another four years, and he described being disheartened by his family’s support for the president.

“I try to avoid conversations with them about it,” he said of his family. “I can have a calm debate about policy ... but I can’t do that about civil rights.”

Heading to the polls

Voter registration and voter identification laws, which require people to show ID when at the polls, have also come into focus ahead of the 2020 election. Nearly 1 million transgender Americans are eligible to vote in November, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. However, in a study of 45 states, the institute found 42 percent of eligible trans voters have no forms of ID that reflect their preferred name and/or gender identity, which could lead to issues when they try to cast their ballot.

Harper credits any progress in transgender legal rights over the last decade to President Barack Obama’s administration and to the visibility of trans celebrities such as the actress Laverne Cox and the writer Janet Mock.

“We have to vote in other people's interests, not just in our own political interests,” said Harper, who is concerned that young trans people feel unsafe and should be thought of when voting in the upcoming election. “We have to make sure that we make the right decision this coming election season and not play politics.”

LGBTQ voters are a reliably Democratic voting bloc. In the 2016 presidential election, 78 percent voted for Hillary Clinton, and in 2018, 82 percent were in favor of their districts’ Democratic candidates, according to exit polls.

Harper said she wants elected officials across the political spectrum to listen to the needs of their transgender constituents, and she is also encouraging trans individuals to engage with politics – including a run for office.

Many transgender Americans, including retired teacher and band director Stephanie Byers, are doing just that.

“When we start running for politics, our gender should be the least of our worries,” said Byers, a Democratic nominee for the Kansas Legislature. “People want people who will represent their district, that look at their needs.”

The retired school teacher’s campaign for the state’s left-leaning District 86 seat is focused on school funding and teacher pay. Byers, who would be the first transgender person in the Kansas Legislature if she’s victorious, said that while her gender identity comes up on the trail, she thinks Americans are becoming more accepting.

“It may take us a little more time, but we’ll get there,” Byers said about trans equality.

Byers will appear on Kansas’ Nov. 3 ballot alongside the presidential hopefuls. There are currently four openly trans representatives holding office at the state level. While a record number of gay and lesbian Americans are serving in Congress, trans people have yet to represent at a national level.

Harper said trans people have the support from the American public to effect change.

“The transgender tipping point is here,” Harper said. “We can win elections. We can shift culture, but we just have to believe in ourselves.”

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